Tony Gonzalez: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
It seems like only yesterday that Tony Gonzalez had nixed a trade to the Falcons (spring of 2008). It seems like only yesterday when the Falcons were the NFL's laughingstock, in the wake of coach Bobby Petrino's cowardly exile from the pro game and Michael Vick's well-chronicled problems with the law. And it seems like only yesterday when Michael Turner was running wild for the Chargers, as LaDainian Tomlinson's redoubtable heir apparent in San Diego.
What a difference a "day" makes, eh? Turner has a permanent home in Atlanta. The NFL Network loves the Falcons' second-year QB. And Gonzalez, a surefire Hall of Famer around 2018, is possibly the final piece to Atlanta's championship puzzle ... which gives us a perfect reason to address his pre-draft trade to the Falcons, Revelations-style:
What He'll Love: In my mind, the Falcons have now overtaken the Chargers and Cowboys, possessing the NFL's best QB-RB-WR-TE quartet. In fact, it's entirely possible that QB Matt Ryan (3,440 yards passing, 16 TDs last season), Michael Turner (1,699 rushing yards, 17 TDs), WR Roddy White and Gonzalez (96 catches, 1,058 yards, 10 TDs in '08) will be off fantasy-league draft boards by Round 4 -- an amazing feat considering Atlanta's overall plight just two seasons ago. Yes, Turner's a beast ... but with Gonzo on board, he'll rarely see eight defenders in the "box." Yes, White is one of the league's best pass-catchers (88 receptions in '08), but gone are the days of double teams in opposing secondaries. And yes, Ryan had perhaps the best rookie season of any QB since Dan Marino (1983), but defenses will now think twice before trying corner or safety blitzes. The bottom line: Failure is not an option for the Falcons -- at least during Gonzalez's three-year window as a top-5 tight end (he's 33). This new arrangement has to work.
What He'll Love, Part II: With four of the first 125 picks, and seven choices from Rounds 1-6, the Falcons can exclusively focus on defense and/or fortifying the offensive line. Talk about GM peace of mind!
What He May Loathe: In the Falcons' checkered history, spanning 43 seasons, the franchise has never had back-to-back winning seasons (they went 11-5 last year).
What'll Make Him Cringe: Should Ryan fall prey to injury, Atlanta's backup quarterbacks are Chris Redman and D.J. Shockley. All of a sudden, KC barbecued ribs, Matt Cassel and Tyler Thigpen would be looking ... (to quote Larry David) ... "pretty, pretty good!"
What I'll Remember On Fantasy Draft Day: I seldom take a QB in the first six rounds -- so cross Ryan off the list. I rarely invest in tight ends in the first four rounds -- so remove Gonzo from the board. And I'll need a top-3 pick in Round 1 to have a realistic shot at Turner (25-percent chance in 12-team leagues). But I'm open to plucking White from the draft pool around Round 5 -- unless I've already made the plunge for Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson in PPR drafts. But then again, you can never have enough high-end receivers, and White is steadily approaching god-like status in the red zone.
Now that we've taken care of the Falcons ... what's the rejiggered state of the Chiefs' offensive attack?
QB - Matt Cassel: Talk about a crapshoot fantasy pick. Yes, Cassel has the capacity for 400-yard games (twice achieved with New England in 2008), but who's to say he's a better long-range QB option than Tyler Thigpen? And who's to say a large chunk of his success last year didn't stem from having the NFL's best offensive line ... along with Randy Moss and Wes Welker as targets? If you have Cassel pegged for 2,700 passing yards, you'll be satisfied come December; but if you?re expecting 3,700 yards again, you may find a lump of coal in your playoff stocking.
RB - Larry Johnson: A healthy LJ still has the capacity for 1,400 rushing yards and 13 TDs. But if the last two injury-riddled seasons are better indicators for '09 estimates, Johnson is nothing more than a sixth- or seventh-round pick in standard-scoring leagues. Sad to say, but LJ needs to re-establish his dominance again. There are no more free passes.
Jamaal Charles: Don't let the 629 pedestrian yards fool you. Charles showed glimpses of his amazing fantasy potential last season; and if LJ is not on the Chiefs' radar come September (a distinct possibility), it's reasonable to expect 1,200 total yards and 6 TDs from the explosive Texas standout. He'll bring you fifth-round production in '09 for a ninth-round price.
WR - Dwayne Bowe: History may prove that WR Brandon Marshall's mega-success in Denver was directly tied to Jay Cutler (now of the Bears). But in Kansas City, Bowe should post stellar numbers, regardless of who's throwing him the ball. That's comforting news for fantasy owners, who should expect a serious flirtation with 93 catches, 1,130 receiving yards and 8-9 TDs.
Mark Bradley: Did you hear the rumor about Bradley? He's demanding a trade ... to the Chiefs' scout team. All kidding aside, Bradley owes a good chunk of his 2008 mini-breakout to Thigpen, and it's quite possible he won?t encounter similar on-field chemistry with Cassel. In other words, he's nothing more than a 500-yard, 4-TD threat, until further notice.
Bobby Engram: He could easily be the wild card to the Chiefs' season. If Engram can establish a quick rapport with Cassel and dial up his 2007 self (94 catches, 1,147 yards), Kansas City will finally have a lethal No. 2 receiver. Of course, at age 36, that?s easier said than done.
TE - Brad Cottam: In the wake of Gonzo's departure, Cottam will probably amass 400 yards and 3 TDs this season. In other words, he's not even draft-worthy in 10-team leagues.
With Gonzo now a Falcon, here are my revised gut-feeling QB locks for 275 yards passing and/or 3 TDs in Week 1:
1. Carson Palmer vs. Denver
2. Drew Brees vs. Detroit (has a minimum of 14 weather-friendly games)
3. Kurt Warner vs. San Francisco
4. Aaron Rodgers vs. Chicago
5. Tom Brady vs. Buffalo (he's baaaaaaaaaaaaaaack)
6. Sage Rosenfels @ Cleveland
7. Derek Anderson vs. Minnesota
8. Matt Ryan vs. Miami
One good turn deserves another ... so here are the RB locks for 120 total yards and/or 2 TDs for Week 1:
1. Willie Parker vs. Tennessee (I've learned NOT to doubt his Week 1 greatness)
2. Michael Turner vs. Miami
3. Willis McGahee vs. Kansas City
4. DeAngelo Williams vs. Philly (I was soooo tempted to put Jonathan Stewart here)
5. Brian Westbrook @ Carolina
6. Adrian Peterson @ Cleveland
7. Joseph Addai vs. Jacksonville
8. Maurice Jones-Drew @ Indianapolis
9. Marion Barber @ Tampa Bay
10. Pierre Thomas vs. Detroit
11. Frank Gore @ Arizona
12. Matt Forte @ Green Bay
13. Darren McFadden vs. San Diego
And for good measure ... Week 1's WR locks for 110 yards and/or 1 TD:
1. Andre Johnson vs. N.Y. Jets
2. Sidney Rice @ Cleveland (he'll have a major breakout in '09)
3. Braylon Edwards vs. Minnesota (assuming he's still wearing a Browns uni)
4. Larry Fitzgerald vs. San Francisco
5. Dwayne Bowe @ Baltimore
6. Marques Colston vs. Detroit
7. Calvin Johnson @ New Orleans
8. Randy Moss vs. Buffalo
9. Chris Chambers vs. Oakland
10. Reggie Wayne vs. Jacksonville
11. T.J. Houshmandzadeh vs. St. Louis
12. Greg Jennings vs. Chicago
13. Roddy White vs. Miami
Here are my preseason TE rankings for standard-scoring leagues, from No. 1 (Jason Witten) to No. 25 (rookie Brandon Pettigrew):
1. Jason Witten, Cowboys
2. Tony Gonzalez, Falcons
3. Antonio Gates, Chargers
4. Greg Olsen, Bears (could easily be the Bears' leading receiver)
5. Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers (I'm treading lightly on this projection)
6. Owen Daniels, Texans
7. Dallas Clark, Colts
8. John Carlson, Seahawks
9. Chris Cooley, Redskins
10. Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings
11. Tony Scheffler, Broncos
12. Jeremy Shockey, Saints (the NFC South has K2, Shockey and Gonzo at TE)
13. Dustin Keller, Jets
14. Zach Miller, Raiders
15. Todd Heap, Ravens
16. Heath Miller, Steelers
17. Vernon Davis, 49ers
18. Ben Utecht, Bengals (has the capacity for 65 catches, if healthy)
19. Donald Lee, Packers
20. Bo Scaife, Titans
21. Anthony Fasano, Dolphins
22. Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars
23. Brent Celek, Eagles
24. L.J. Smith, Ravens
25. Brandon Pettigrew, Rookie (will rise higher if he goes to a pass-happy team)
Jake Delhomme: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
After reading about Jake Delhomme's brand-spanking-new $42 million extension (with $20 million guaranteed), I cannot decide if the Panthers are making a genuine, long-term commitment to their quarterback of seven years (including '09) ... or if the move was just a clever way to clear salary-cap room, while representing the initial phase of a substantial rebuilding one year from now. Either way, I'm struggling to see any scenario where Delhomme remains a week-in, week-out starting QB in fantasyland -- even if Steve Smith channels his once-dominant self.
Yes, Delhomme completed 60 percent of his passes last season. Yes, he threw for 3,288 yards without the inimitable Smith for two games (suspension). And yes, he led the Panthers to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title. But there are also three major strikes working against the Carolina QB: His age (34), middling TD rate (23 in his last 19 games) and the indescribably bad performance against Arizona in the playoffs (205 yards passing, 1 TD, 5 INTs).
For the sake of argument, let's say you waited until Rounds 9 and 10 to take two comparable starting QBs in fantasyland drafts; and let's assume we're talking about Delhomme and Denver's Kyle Orton. From a week-to-week basis, here's the breakdown of QB starts:
Week 1 -- Orton (@ Cincinnati) over Delhomme (vs. Philadelphia)
Week 2 -- Orton (vs. Cleveland) over Delhomme (@ Atlanta)
Week 3 -- Delhomme (@ Dallas) over Orton (@ Oakland)
Week 4 -- Orton (vs. Denver) over Delhomme (BYE)
Week 5 -- Delhomme (vs. Washington) over Orton (vs. New England)
Week 6 -- Orton (@ San Diego) over Delhomme (@ Tampa Bay)
Week 7 -- Delhomme (vs. Buffalo) over Orton (BYE)
Week 8 -- Delhomme (@ Arizona) over Orton (@ Baltimore)
Week 9 -- Delhomme (@ New Orleans) over Orton (vs. Pittsburgh)
Week 10 -- Delhomme (vs. Atlanta) over Orton (@ Washington)
Week 11 -- Orton (vs. San Diego) over Delhomme (vs. Miami)
Week 12 -- Orton (vs. N.Y. Giants) over Delhomme (@ N.Y. Jets)
Week 13 -- Orton (@ Kansas City) over Delhomme (vs. Tampa Bay)
Week 14 -- Orton (@ Indianapolis) over Delhomme (@ New England)
Week 15 -- Delhomme (vs. Minnesota) over Orton (vs. Oakland)
Week 16 -- Delhomme (@ N.Y. Giants) over Orton (@ Philadelphia)
Week 17 -- Orton (vs. Kansas City) over Delhomme (vs. New Orleans)
Verdict: In a nip-and-tuck battle, Orton gets the nod in nine of 17 games, leaving Delhomme with eight and two starts during the crucial fantasy-playoff rounds of Weeks 14, 15 and 16. However, if you're riding Orton from Weeks 11-14 -- and he provides solid production during this nerve-racking stretch run -- chances are you'll keep starting Orton in December ... partly out of fear of jinxing yourself out of a fantasy title.
With the help of my SI.com cohort, Jeff Ritter, here are some prop bets for the upcoming season:
Chris "Beanie" Wells or Knowshon Moreno?
Ritter: I reserve the right to change my mind immediately after we know where each of these NFL-ready prospects ends up. But for now, Wells is my choice. It all comes down to numbers, and at 6-foot-1, 237 pounds, Wells is a feature back just waiting to happen. Moreno is the more explosive between the two, but at 5-10, 217, he's built more for a role as a third-down/change-of-pace back -- at least during his rookie campaign.
Clemons: I will concede that neither rusher is a home-run back, in the mode of Titans wunderkind Chris Johnson (1,488 total yards, 10 TDs in '08). But given Moreno's amazing open-field elusiveness (and that includes hurdling would-be tacklers), I like his chances for the next 10 years (barring injury). Case in point, if the Saints were to draft Moreno in Round 1, I think it'd be extremely difficult for Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush to ciphon all the touches between the 20s in 2009 -- Moreno is that good. However, if Wells were drafted by New Orleans, in my opinion, he'd be nothing more than a (very good) red-zone rusher. Think of him as a leaner, stronger, faster and better LenDale White around the TD pilons.
Ben Roethlisberger or Jay Cutler?
Ritter: Cutler is the sexy pick here. He's going to energize the city of Chicago. He's a gambler. He's competitive. He has moxie. But you know what? I'm taking Big Ben first in fantasy leagues. Cutler's most productive target is now tight end Greg Olsen, and he has to adjust to a new offense -- not to mention the additional pressures and expectations he put on himself by whining his way out of Denver. Sure, Roethlisberger is, and always will be, quarterbacking a run-first offense. But the potential for quality numbers is there (witness his 32-TD effort in '07), without Cutler's immediate bust potential in Chicago. Assuming he's healthy, sign me up for Ben this fall.
Clemons: I tend to agree with you on this one, my friend -- at least for the coming season. But Cutler has a few things going for him, as well: First, the incomparable Matt Forte should clear 65 catches, easy (in addition to his regular rushing load). Second, Cutler should have immediate chemistry with wide receiver Earl Bennett, given their prior history at Vanderbilt (Bennett had 79 catches for 876 yards as a freshman in 2005). And thirdly (is that even a word?), I'm quite certain the Bears front office will bolster their new star's confidence by securing a top-10 wide receiver in this weekend's draft. Hakeem Nicks? Derrius Heyward-Bey? Percy Harvin? Or what about Austin Collie, the BYU standout and possible leader to the next generation of Wes Welker clones?
Matt Forte or Chris Johnson?
Ritter: I'm going with Forte. I love Johnson as much as the next guy (but not as much as Jay Clemons, whose love for Johnson borders on the unnatural), but Forte is my clear choice for one reason: No time share. LenDale White is still in Tennessee, and as long as the Titans continue to secretly put donuts in the opponents' end zone (kind of like an Easter egg hunt for rotund running backs), they'll continue to give LenDale the ball at the 1 and reap the rewards. White picked up 15 donuts -- um, I mean, touchdowns, in 2008, and I see no reason why he won't crack double digits again in '09.
Clemons: In a Points Per Reception league, I'd go with Forte in a millisecond. Heck, in a standard-scoring league, with the Titans still embroiled in a RB-time share, I'd probably side with Forte, as well. However, the day is coming when Johnson takes over as Tennessee's full-time back (sooner than later) ... and I want to be in on the ground floor when that transformation occurs. Without a doubt ... Johnson permanently vaults into the top-5 strata of running backs.
Chad Johnson or T.J. Houshmandzadeh?
Ritter: HOOUUUUUUSSSSHHHHHH. Do I really need to explain why? I mean, do you prefer your receivers to being consistently productive and mentally stable? Or do you prefer ... the alternative? That's what I thought.
Clemons: Wow, such cutting-edge analysis. So, let me see if I have this straight: You'd rather have "Housh ... mazilla" on the basis of his sanity and time-tested 85-catch potential, instead of a guy who's a lock for 4-5 games of 150 receiving yards ... and 2-3 TV-friendly outbursts once the Bengals start to implode? Hmmm ... maybe you're right. Suddenly, Cedric Benson and/or Chris Henry are attractive fantasy options for the dysfunctional Bungles.
I may still be riding high as a fantasy football writer, but I'm hardly an expert at forecasting the NFL Draft. Luckily, these Web sites have been busy reading the draft-day leaves for us:
**SI.com's Don Banks' Mock 7.0
**Great Blue North Draft Report
**NFL Draft Site
**The New NFL Draft Report
**NFL Draft Blitz
**The Football Expert
**NFL Draft King
Using the time-tested (and old-fogey-NFL-scout-approved) Eye Test, these are my fantasyland creme-de-la-creme picks for the Class of 2009 ... while looking four years into the future:
Come 2013, the top five fantasyland quarterbacks will be ... (in order of greatness)
1. Matthew Stafford, Georgia
2. Mark Sanchez, USC
3. Josh Freeman, Kansas State
4. Rhett Bomar, Sam Houston State
5. Pat White, West Virginia
Come 2013, the top five fantasyland running backs will be ...
1. Shonn Greene, Iowa
2. Knowshon Moreno, Georgia
3. LeSean McCoy, Pittsburgh
4. Jeremiah Johnson, Oregon
5. Chris "Beanie" Wells, Ohio State
Come 2013, the top five fantasyland wide receivers will be ...
1. Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech
2. Jeremy Maclin, Missouri
3. Percy Harvin, Florida
4. Kenny Britt, Rutgers
5. Austin Collie, BYU
Come 2013, the top five fantasyland tight ends will be ...
1. Brandon Pettigrew, Oklahoma State
2. Chase Coffman, Missouri
3. Cornelius Ingram, Florida
4. Connor Barwin, Cincinnati (plays defense, as well)
5. Travis Beckum, Wisconsin
The following represents the Top 50 Picks by Draft Slot since 1980. The process here is pretty simple: Emmitt Smith, drafted by the Cowboys in 1990, trumps O-lineman extraordinaire Steve Hutchinson as the greatest player taken at No. 17 in the last 29 drafts. That was an easy choice.
Other selections, however, weren't so elementary. For example, who had the greatest impact at the No. 9 overall slot -- perennial All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher or Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, the Oilers/Titans standout from 1983-2000? Or what about the Hall of Fame battle at 10, between Marcus Allen and Rod Woodson? Let the debates rage on ...
1 -- John Elway (over Peyton Manning, Bruce Smith, Orlando Pace, Troy Aikman)
2 -- Lawrence Taylor (over Marshall Faulk, Donovan McNabb, Julius Peppers, Eric Dickerson)
3 -- Barry Sanders (over Anthony Munoz, Steve McNair, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson)
4 -- Reggie White (over Kenny Easley, Derrick Thomas, Edgerrin James, Jonathan Ogden)
5 -- LaDainian Tomlinson (over Deion Sanders, Junior Seau, Sean Taylor)
6 -- Walter Jones (over Tim Brown, Torry Holt, Richard Seymour)
7 -- Sterling Sharpe (over Terry Glenn, Adrian Peterson, Troy Vincent, Champ Bailey)
8 -- Ronnie Lott (over Mike Munchak, Willie Roaf, Plaxico Burress, Jordan Gross)
9 -- Bruce Matthews (over Brian Urlacher, Jerome Brown, Richmond Webb)
10 -- Marcus Allen (over Rod Woodson, Herman Moore, Willie Anderson, Levi Jones)
11 -- Michael Irvin (over Wilber Marshall, Ben Roethlisberger, Patrick Willis, Dwight Freeney)
12 -- Warren Sapp (over Shawne Merriman, Jim Lachey, Warrick Dunn)
13 -- Tony Gonzalez (over Keith Jackson, Marcus Stroud)
14 -- Jim Kelly (over Jeremy Shockey, Eddie George)
15 -- Jerome McDougle (over Wayne Gandy, Booger McFarland)
16 -- Jerry Rice (over Troy Polamalu, Julian Peterson, Shawn Andrews, Hugh Douglas)
17 -- Emmitt Smith (over Steve Hutchinson)
18 -- Art Monk (over Alfred Williams, Chad Pennington, Will Smith)
19 -- Marvin Harrison (over Shaun Alexander, Joey Browner, Otis Wilson, Antonio Cromartie)
20 -- Steve Atwater (over Wil Wolford, Mark May, Mike Quick, Dale Carter, Javon Walker)
21 -- Randy Moss (over Johnnie Morton, Nate Clements)
22 -- Andre Rison (over Harris Barton, Lorenzo White)
23 -- Ty Law (over Willis McGahee, Antoine Winfield, Bruce Armstrong, Deuce McAllister)
24 -- Ed Reed (over Steven Jackson, Rodney Hampton, Eric Moulds, Chris Johnson)
25 -- Ted Washington (over Louis Oliver, Donovin Darius, Charles Grant)
26 -- Ray Lewis (over Robert Porcher, Jim Harbaugh, Don Mosebar, Alan Faneca)
27 -- Dan Marino (over Larry Johnson, Charles White)
28 -- Darrell Green (over Derrick Brooks, William Floyd, Brian Blados, Luis Castillo)
29 -- Steve Wisinewski (over Chris Spielman, Nate Odomes, Marlin Jackson)
30 -- Eric Allen (over Patrick Kerney, Keith Bulluck, Reggie Wayne)
31 -- Todd Heap (over Carl Pickens, Al Wilson, Nnamdi Asomugha)
32 -- Drew Brees (over Logan Mankins, Scott Case, Anthony Gonzalez)
33 -- Brett Favre (over Isaac Bruce, Eric Steinbach, Karlos Dansby)
34 -- Tim McDonald (over Kevin Glover, K. Vanden Bosch, James Wilder, Demeco Ryans)
35 -- Christian Okoye (over Jack Squirek, Mike Alstott, Alge Crumpler)
36 -- Tiki Barber (over Chad Johnson, Jimmy Smith, Kevin Mawae)
37 -- Randall Cunningham (over Cris Collinsworth, Darren Woodson, Leonard Marshall)
38 -- Boomer Esiason (over Lewis Billups)
39 -- Mike Singletary (over Darryl Talley, Keith Sims, Kendrell Bell, Darryl "Moose" Johnston)
40 -- Michael Strahan (over Thurman Thomas, Tim Grunhard, Ken Lucas)
41 -- Andre Tippett (over Ken Norton, Jr., Dre Bly)
42 -- Jake Plummer (over Larry Tripplett, Ken Hamlin)
43 -- Corey Dillon (over Muhsin Muhammad, Julius Jones, Kris Jenkins)
44 -- Matt Millen (over Bob Sanders, Matt Forte, Dermontti Dawson, Ron Rivera, Chad Brown)
45 -- Ricky Watters (over Mike Gann, Lofa Tatupu, Justin Smiley)
46 -- Larry Allen (over Flipper Anderson, Samari Rolle)
47 -- Jerry Porter (over Mike Nugent)
48 -- Howie Long (over LeRoy Butler, Dwight Stephenson, Chris Kelsay)
49 -- Roger Craig (over Barrett Robins, LaMont Jordan)
50 -- Tom Newberry (over Irv Pankey, Michael Dean Perry, Brentson Buckner, Bobby Taylor)